In my last post, I decided that I was definitely going to branch out from my usual Italian and Irish fare into more diverse, particularly vegetarian, cuisines. Tonight I got the vegetarian part right, not so much the branching out part.
After going to the Farmer's Market last weekend, my fridge is filled with spring onions, garlic, leafy greens and beautiful purple and green asparagus. Whenever asparagus comes in season, I'm inspired to make risotto, that oozing, creamy, silky rice dish that lends itself so well to delicate spring vegetables.
One thing I don't like about risotto, and the main reason I get sick of it as soon as asparagus goes out of season, is that it consists mainly of starchy white rice which leaves me with a heavy, sluggish feeling.
So today, I thought I'd go crazy and try a healthier version using brown rice and pack it with spring veggies. I found myself remembering my brown rice pudding experiment and thinking that this will be a waste of perfectly good vegetables, but I was not to be deterred. We could always order pizza.
The challenge, of course, would be the texture. Risotto is made with very specific types of rice (I usually use arborio) which have a short, plump shape and high starch content. The starch is what creates the oozing texture. The rice is briefly sauteed in a base of fragrant vegetables and olive oil, then cooked slowly by stirring in spoonful after spoonful of stock or water. You're never simmering the rice, but rather stirring the liquid into it, over and over and over. This repeated motion is what draws the starch out of the rice. By the time the rice is cooked through, half of it has dissolved and mixed with the stock to create a thick, flavorful sauce.
The problem with brown rice is twofold. First, the cooking time: risotto takes about 40 minutes, which is about 4 times as long as the same rice would take to cook simmering on the stove. Given that brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook (at Boulder altitude), this projects to a cooking time of 3 hours, stirring all the while. Hmmm. No wonder I've never seen a recipe for brown rice risotto.
The second problem is the rice bran. I assume that this coating, which gets polished off to create white rice, will probably be a nice layer of protection for the very starches which I want to release.
I decided to ignore the second problem, figuring that if I can at least get the rice to cook, then I'd be left with a soupy stew, which might not taste like risotto, but would be edible.
Back to the first problem. I didn't want to parboil the rice, as I was worried that it would get fluffy before it's time, and therefore I'd miss my starch release window. But I couldn't possibly stir it for three hours. Instead I did a combination stir/simmer method. After sauteing the rice and deglazing the pan, I went about making the risotto as usual, adding a spoonful of stock, stirring it in, adding, stirring, and so on. I did this for about 20 minutes. Next I added a few extra spoonfuls of liquid, stuck the lid on and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Then I removed the lid and went back to the risotto stirring method for a few minutes. I repeated this process for about an hour.
The resulting texture was not quite as silky as white rice risotto, but it was definitely pleasant and unmistakably risotto. In fact, there was one improvement. Risotto is supposed to be cooked just until the rice has a bit of bite left in it, rather than until mushy. The chewiness of the brown rice enhanced the characteristic contrast between the soft texture of the sauce and the al dente bite of the rice.
One final tip - because this risotto takes much longer to cook than white rice risotto, don't add all of the veggies to the pot at the beginning, or it will end up bland and colorless. Reserve half to add at, or close to, the end. And go crazy with the veggies. I've put the ones that I used here for reference, but this is very specific to produce available in May in Colorado!
Here is my heavily modified recipe, adapted from The Naked Chef, by (my hero, sigh) Jamie Oliver.
Springtime Brown Rice Risotto with Asparagus Serves 4
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 red onion, diced
- 5 Egyptian bunching onions (or spring onions)
- 4 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 stalk Elephant garlic (or 2 cloves garlic, minced)
- 1/2 lb. asparagus
- 1 1/2 c. short grain brown rice
- 1/2 c. dry white vermouth
- 1 quart low (or no) sodium stock (chicken or vegetable) plus extra water
- 4 Tbs. butter, cut into large chunks
- 1 large handful grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 small handful mint, roughly chopped
- sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
Cut the elephant garlic into thirds crosswise. Save the end third for making stock another time. Finely slice the remaining green and white parts separately. Repeat with the spring onions.
Remove the tough ends from the asparagus by holding both ends and bending until the stalk snaps. Cut the tips from the asparagus. Finely slice the stalks. Blanch the tips for about 30 seconds in rapidly boiling water, then plunge them into ice water to keep them from cooking further. Remove and drain.
Ok, prep time is over...now to cook the risotto!
Heat the olive oil to medium/medium low in a large pan. Add the red onion, white part of the spring onions, the celery, and a large pinch of salt. Sweat them without coloring for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the white part of the garlic and cook for another two minutes.
Turn the heat up a bit, then add the rice. Stir it continuously, so as not to color. After a few minutes, it will look translucent. In a dramatic splash, add the vermouth (see my previous post on how much fun this is), stirring to dissolve all of the delicious vegetable residue from the bottom of the pan.
Once the vermouth is cooked into the rice, add the first spoonful of stock, the sliced asparagus stalks and a pinch of salt. Continue to cook for about an hour using the stir/simmer technique described above. Also, check for seasoning periodically, adding salt and pepper to taste.
When the rice is soft with a slight bite remaining, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter, cheese, green ends of the onions and garlic, the asparagus tips and the mint. Be conservative with the mint - you want just a hint. Leave covered to rest for about five minutes.
Finally, check the texture, adding a little more liquid if necessary, and seasoning. Serve garnished with grated Parmesan and a little more mint. Goes well with a crisp green salad.